The Human Spirit: Cousins
As I learned from an exhibition in New York City’s Museum
of Jewish Heritage, being a cousin – true or imagined – might have saved your
life in the dark days before World War II.
Growing up in America, when we cousins got together
– let’s say for Passover – we would examine the definitions of closeness: Who
was a first cousin, who a second, and who a third? But we knew there was another
concept of cousinhood. When the older generation used the Yiddish “kuzina” for
cousin, it simply meant “family.” No one was counting degrees of separation.
As I learned from an exhibition in New York City’s Museum of Jewish
Heritage, being a cousin – true or imagined – might have saved your life in the
dark days before World War II.
For example, in September 1938, Morris
Zeisel in Brooklyn received a letter from celebrated Vienna- born composer Erich
Zeisl, who had won an Austrian state prize in 1934 for a Requiem Mass. Zeisel
was a plumber earning $75 a week.
He’d never heard of his illustrious
Facing the Anschluss, Zeisl was desperate to leave
Europe, and read through the New York phone books hoping to find either a
long-lost cousin or a namesake who might be willing to sponsor him. We don’t
know how many others received letters and didn’t answer.
But Zeisel the
plumber from Brooklyn sent an affidavit and promised to be responsible for
kuzina Erich Zeisl and his wife Gertrud. The two men weren’t related.
You’ll find him heralded in the exhibit called “Against the Odds: American Jews
and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees 1933-1941,” along with Universal Studios
founder Carl Laemmle and William B. Thalhimer, Sr., who figure among the heroes
of the ultimately gloomy story of American reluctance to save European Jewry,
cousins or not-cousins. Laemmle brought over many Jews. Thalhimer overcame visa
limitations by bringing in permitted agricultural workers for a Virginia farm he
opened for the purpose of helping immigrants.
A primary focus of the
museum is the story of German-born Jewish fur manufacturers Jacob and David
Kestenbaum, who sent for hundreds of “kuzinim,” whether they were blood
relatives or not. They even hired a secretary to work fulltime on the
applications and files. American diplomatic bureaucrats eventually caught on to
the largesse of these righteous Jews and shut down their rescue operation. The
State Department ruled that the Kestenbaums simply had too many cousins and
couldn’t bring any more to the shores of the United States.
were weighted against Central Europeans and even more Eastern Europeans, says
Bonnie Gurewitsch, the curator of the exhibition.
“Had Norwegians wanted
to immigrate in large numbers, this would have been easy,” she explains.
From the museum’s Battery Park location, you can see the Statue of Liberty, with
its famous poem by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied
pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled
masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the
golden door!” How hollow the words sound against the bitter history of the US
government’s refusal to change immigration policy, or even to fulfill the visa
quotas that were in place. Instead, a bureaucratic backlog, backed by public
opinion (including a majority of Jewish Americans), blocked the gateways for the
masses, and even the elite.
Potential immigrants lined up at American
embassies. Most of the applications were tossed aside as unworthy. The paperwork
grew and became more daunting and cumbersome. The exhibition’s dominating image
is of hundreds of curved paper forms hanging from strings. Paperwork, escalating
fees of passage and clerical callousness crushed the hopes and survival chances
of those whose lives were hanging by a string.
Gurewitsch spent years
reading the documentation and correspondence.
“Even if the existing
quotas had been fulfilled, another 300,000 Jews would have been saved,” she
While celebrating the efforts of the few who worked against the
odds, the exhibition is a scathing indictment of the potential pitilessness of
the USA. It should be a compulsory study for diplomats before they are posted.
STILL TASTING the bitterness of the New York exhibit, oddly, two days after
visiting Battery Park in New York, I found myself in Whitwell, Tennessee,
visiting another remarkable museum related to the Holocaust. No grand statue
stands nearby, just a brick public school with a fleet of yellow school buses
waiting outside to pick up the 450 pupils who live in this rural area.
Fifteen years ago, school principal Linda Hooper initiated an after-school
program on tolerance in the Whitwell Middle School. Nearly all of her students
are white Christians. A few blacks and Hispanics. No Jews. When the preteens
studied the Holocaust, they found the numbers unfathomable.
to understand what six million meant. And after they learned in teacher Sandra
Roberts’s class that Johan Vaalar, a Norwegian (!), designed a loop of metal – a
paperclip – and that some Norwegians wore them to protest Nazi occupation, one
of the kids suggested that they collect six million paper clips. They set up a
website and solicited paper clips from cousins and celebs. German-born
journalists Peter and Dagmar Schroeder (not cousins of mine, although my husband
is Gerald Schroeder), who were covering the White House, somehow heard about it
and took an active hand in the publicity. At first, there was a trickle of
clips, but later a great river of clips surged from all over the world to the
Tennessee valley. It turns out that different countries have different-style
paper clips. They come in many sizes and colors. How appropriate. They reached
six million, then reached 11 million.
Today there are more than 30
million, and more than 30,000 documents and letters sharing stories and
I drove to Whitwell, just a half hour from Chattanooga, with
two women acquaintances – soon to become friends. In the back were their
home-schooled preteen daughters, first cousins. The clock moved to Central Time
along the way, and we gained an hour. School was still in session, and the
office secretary welcomed us and directed us to a library room containing
shelves lined with ring-binders. A few pupils were there.
home-schooled girls, M and E, had learned about the Holocaust from their parent-
teachers, too. The exhibit, like the one in New York, is minimally interactive.
No bells and whistles. The main activity is reading. M and E took down folders
and began to read. There are letters from schoolkids, teachers, survivors. The
majority are positive, but a few folders hold negative letters, criticizing the
project and denying the Holocaust. The girls took special notice of a letter
from a boy in Alaska who had learned about the efforts of the Tennessee kids and
thought it was great.
Exhibits include a Torah scroll and a fine
collection of non-fiction and fiction for children and adults. You also press
start on an old-fashioned tape recorder and a southern-accented women’s voice –
maybe one of the local teachers – tells the story of the exhibit. The journalist
Schroeders helped bring a genuine railway car – the kind that carried gasping
Jews to their final destinations – to the schoolyard. The car serves as the
Children’s Holocaust Memorial and holds 11 million clips, one for each victim of
the Holocaust. A local crane company lifted the car from the truck onto rails
set at the school. The rails were made in Tennessee during World War II.
Volunteers prepared the site. All this happened out there where the time changes
in the state of Tennessee, in a town with fewer than 2,000 residents. The theme
of the museum and the school is “Changing the World… One Class at a Time,” and
it’s powerful for the setting and the message.
ON THE way back to
Chattanooga, the cousins were quiet and thoughtful in the backseat.
was falling, and we passed a middle-aged homeless man on a bicycle. His life’s
belongings – including a guitar – were wrapped and hanging from the handlebars.
He was a strong biker, and at a traffic light he caught up to us.
the girls suggested we help him. And it turns out she had something in the car
with her for just such a purpose. In her youth group, they had filled Ziploc
plastic bags with what they thought the homeless might need. Hers had crackers
and cheese and toiletries. Her Mom stopped the car, and I hopped out with her to
call the bike rider. At first, he waved us away, but then he came back and took
the package from 12-year-old.
“Thank you for encouraging me,” he told
her, and biked away.
With the right education, goodness can flourish, and
the lamp can indeed lift high beside the golden door.
never see the biker again. They aren’t even cousins.